If there was one dominant theme coming of out the London Book Fair last week it was of an industry taking a pause, drawing in a big deep breath and working out what comes next. At Digital Minds, the author Nick Harkaway said that publishers liked to reach a plateau and then wait for the next innovation to run them down. In my Leader column for The Bookseller last week, I took issue with this. Just because the activity isn’t visible, and the answers are not forthcoming, does not mean that publishing isn’t thinking about it.
There isn’t a conversation I have with anyone in publishing these days that isn’t prefaced by a worried shrug, or a slightly nervous glance over the shoulder. Publishing is in confident mood right now, but that confidence is based on some brittle assumptions: that digital continues to not disrupt, and that physical book retail does not close down. Take either of those two pillars away, and all this talk of an orderly transition to digital, will vanish as quickly as a drunken tweet.
The question of what comes next, and how much we can influence that should now be foremost in our minds. Speaking at Digital Minds, Faber’s Stephen Page said it was difficult to lock a group of employees in a room (away from the wider business) and ask them to lose money for six months. He is right, but one only has to look at the Blackwell’s announcement at London Book Fair to see the stimulating impact of controlled innovation. Of course Page doesn’t need any kind of lecture on this, Faber has been innovating for the past half-decade.
Publishing’s other great problem is that its core product isn’t broke. What have we really found out from five years of Kindle? Readers like reading. And generally they like reading in an environment unencumbered by music, video and animation. If publishers don’t feel like their products are going out of fashion, how can we expect them to change them. In the Telegraph before the book fair its head of books Gaby Wood accused publishers of playing “it far too safe, lazily pouring pdfs into e-pub files and assuming people will just absorb books how they please, as if a publisher’s job were merely to make things in different colours”. At Digital Minds, Bill Thompson said a file was different from a book, because a book when it was published was finished, a file can go on and on. The future for reading, he said, was more akin to the internet (an infinitely extendable space), than a dead-tree book.
Maybe. For aeons the digitalists have been trying to convince us that the container wasn’t important, that the shift from p to e was as natural as running water, and that we shouldn’t resist it. Now we have got so far the argument is moving ground: suddenly the medium has become the message again. The e-book is dead, long live the Internet-book.
In an essay published in the New Statesman Bryan Appleyard, talks about the industry that has grown up around futurology. He suggests that its roots are born from dissatisfaction in the present rather than from any desire to evoke a better future. “Perhaps this is because the constant, enervating downpour of gadgets and the devices of the marketeers tell us that something better lies just around the next corner and, in our weakness, we believe. Or perhaps it was ever thus. In 1752, Dr Johnson mused that our obsession with the future may be an inevitable adjunct of the human mind. Like our attachment to the past, it is an expression of our inborn inability to live in – and be grateful for – the present.”
There is sometimes a whiff of this in the innovation debate that surrounds publishing. Publishers innovate constantly but much of it occurs in niche areas, away from the glare of social media. Show me a reader in demand of a new way of reading, and I’ll show you six publishers trying to meet that demand. Show me a publisher innovating and I’ll show you six technologists explaining why they are wrong.
But I disagree with Appleyard that this restlessness is inherently negative. And I disagree that publishing is intentionally waiting to be run-over. Publishing is governed by necessity—it lives book by book. That is its greatest asset, and yes probably also its achilles heal. Doing nothing is an option, but equally doing nothing isn’t really in the blood. Either way, my advice for those taking that big deep breath . . . time to exhale.
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